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Magneto and the Sonderkommando

Part 1

The Sonderkommando of the Auschwitz death camp

The members of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando helped lead the victims to the slaughter.

Some of the Sonderkommando left notes and manuscripts in jars and cans, and buried them outside the crematoria. Because they knew they wouldn't survive. The stories they tell are both chilling and heartbreaking.

Then there are the survivors, like Filip Muller, who confirm what these accounts said.

The Sonderkommando was comprised of different squads, and the members of each squad rotated to different jobs. They (a) met the victims as these arrived at the crematorium gates, (b) helped herd the people into the crematorium, (c) ushered the victims into the changing room, (d) helped them undress, and thereby were able to steal extra food from the pockets of these doomed people, (e) led them to the gas chamber and shut them in, and sometimes had to hunt down little children who tried to hide, and throw them in on top of the naked crowd in the gas chamber. Afterwards they helped collect the clothing and belongings of the dead, sending the lot to the "Canada" section of Birkenau, which task also provided opportunities to retrieve valuables, goods, and food that could be used for "organizing" within the camp.

Sometimes Sonderkommando squad members were assigned to collect the bodies that remained on the newly arrived trains, and carry these to the crematorium.  

After the gas had murdered another huddle of victims, some members of the Sonderkommando squad (a) pulled the bodies out of the gas chamber, (b) cleaned up everything -- changing rooms, gas chamber -- so the next transport wouldn't know what had happened, while (c) specialists on the Sonderkommando cut the hair of dead women, pulled the gold teeth, and searched the body cavities for hidden valuables (even the vaginas of dead women and girls, which one young Sonderkommando member described as making him want to give up and die). This group would put the bodies on a lift, which carried the dead up to the ovens, on the floor above.

The group that worked the ovens had to pile the bodies on the retorts in a specific pattern, and burn them a particular way, "stoke" the bodies to keep them burning evenly, and collect the ashes, and dispose of the ashes. (Which Magnus describes.) They also had to keep the ovens working -- which Magnus probably was good at. And they had to keep them cleaned out when ashes and human fat began to interfere with their operation. During the height of the murder of the Hungarian Jews, there were so many bodies, that the Sonderkommando had to go on outdoor burning detail. They had to re-open the large burial pits, and build fires and throw the bodies in. (They also had to watch while sadistic SS officers like Moll threw Hungarian Jewish children in the fires while still alive.)

At the burial/fire pits -- the Sonderkommando had to scoop up the melted human fat, and pour it back on the bodies, to keep the fires going. Also, the Sonderkommando members could be called on at any time to act as servants for the SS personnel. Or for kapos. There wasn't sexual abuse, because no one wanted to touch one of these "crematorium ravens."

The term "organize" refers to the food, valuables, and goods that the Sonderkommando members retrieved from the clothing of the condemned, which could be used to barter for other goods, or privileges by way of bribery, including bribing guards to let the men into the women's camp.

As mentioned, the  Sonderkommando squads rotated to different crematoria or to different tasks, including that of corpse collection. The Sonderkommando squad members also rotated the work within each squad. When Magnus started out, there were at most a few hundred SK members. At the height of the Hungarian Action, in the summer of 1944, there were around 900 to 1,000 members. So Magnus survived several liquidations of the SK, and must have done every job a Sonderkommando could do, in the time he was there.

Drawing by Auschwitz Sonderkommando survivor, David Olere

Part 2

The Children of Shavli

From Leni Yahill's The Holocaust:

"The first sign of the impending liquidation of Shavli came on Friday, November 5, 1943, when the Germans conducted a special *Aktion* to isolate and deport the children, the old, and the sick from the ghetto. First they allowed the Jewish laborers to leave the ghetto for their places of work; then they brought in the SS and a team of Ukrainians to conduct a hunt for children. These Ukrainians, who were particularly sadistic in their treatment of the children, also used this opportunity to loot and destroy Jewish property. 'The Ukrainians broke down walls, attics, and pillars and tore up the floors of the buildings in their search for booty and an opportunity to do ill.' In the course of committing such havoc, they conducted a thorough search for all the hiding places where people had tried to conceal their children, emitting whoops of victory each time they found one .... This *Aktion* in Shavli continued from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with distraught parents standing helplessly behind a fence in the nearby factory compound watching the harrowing spectacle. That day's transport which also included the sick and the elderly, was joined by two members of the Jewish Council. The Germans suggested that their presence would ensure the proper treatment of the children -- who, they contended, were merely being transferred to alternative accommodations. In actuality, the two council members and the rest of the adults were removed from the train at a point along the way and summarily shot; the children were taken not to the town designated as the transport's destination but to Auschwitz, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers."
Uniquely, we have the account of the round up of the children of Shavli, which was one of the last ghettos to be liquidated in Poland, as recorded by diarists from Shavli, and, we have the account of the arrival of the children to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, as witnessed by members of the Sonderkommando. There are two Sonderkommando accounts of what happened next: Two witnesses to a young member of the Sonderkommando, who shall forever remain nameless, and what happened between him and these children.

These children BTW, were among the most spirited and bright Auschwitz had seen come in. They had practically taken care of themselves for years, while their parents were forced into labor details, and they were exceptional for their intelligence, their cheerfulness, and their understanding.

From Yahil's book:

"The head of the Kommando sent them [the children] to the disrobing hall to undress the little ones. There stood a little five-year-old girl undressing her year-old baby brother. When one of the members of the Kommando walked over to her to undress him, the girl cried out, ''Get away from here, Jewish murderer! Don't touch my beautiful brother with your hand stained with Jewish blood. I am now his good mother, and he will die in my arms, together with me.' A seven- or eight-year-old boy standing beside her asked the member of the Kommando if it was really worth his while to lead lovely children to their death by gas just to save his own life."

The diary of a member of the Sonderkommando, Leyb Langfus, was found in 1952 buried outside the crematoria of Auschwitz. In it, he records that the little girl cried out to the young Sonderkommando member, who wanted to help her undress her baby brother: "You are a Jew! How can you drive such sweet children in to be gassed, just so you can stay alive? Is your life among a band of murders really dearer to you than the lives of so many Jewish sacrifices?"

Can we say, a fictional character, a comic book character, really IS that young member of the Sonderkommando to whom these doomed children spoke? That this account is a direct reflection of what the young Magnus experienced, an event that could have happened in the Marvel Universe?

Drawing by Auschwitz Sonderkommando survivor David Olere

Part 3

Magneto's Life in Auschwitz and the Sonderkommando

From the book Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp:

"... Every day in the life of a prisoner was filled with unbearable tension and superhuman effort, emotional turmoil and terror, continuing without respite for months on end. The prisoner's day was also hollow, empty, and mirthless.... Despite the stress, with the ever-present danger the Auschwitz prisoners could never lower their guard, all their energy going to maintain permanent vigilance. Furthermore, the prisoners enjoyed no privacy: day and night they remained in tangible proximity to others. Spoiled food provided no nourishment. Incessant hunger was also a source of ceaseless torment and anguish."
From Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved:

"In fact, even apart from the hard labor, the beatings, the cold, and the illness, the food ration was decisively insufficient for even the most frugal prisoner; the physiological reserves of the organism were consumed in two or three months, and death by hunger, or by diseases induced by hunger, was the prisoner's normal destiny, avoidable only with additional food."
Torture was commonplace. For the Jewish prisoners, no matter where in the camp, death was a certainty; torment, torture, beatings could happen at any time, for any reason. The "universe" of Auschwitz was your worst nightmares about the most sadistic people you know being in charge of your life and destiny. Exceptions, for a short time, were the Gypsy Family Camp and the Czech (Jewish) Family Camp. But the families in these camps suffered from starvation, privation, and disease. And in the end, the beatings and murder happened all at once. As if they were spared the usual hour-to-hour agonies of the rest of the camp, but it all came down on them in one last hour -- in the Gypsies' case, one evening in early August 1944, when the people remaining in the Gypsy Family Camp were attacked, beaten, herded to the gas chambers, and murdered.

Within the camps (Auschwitz I, Birkenau, and Monowitz or Auschwitz III) there were hierarchies that could affect your survival and how much food you got. What squad you were assigned to, who you knew in the camp offices, if you were a communist (among the Polish prisoners it helped a lot -- the Polish camp underground was largely a communist Polish underground),  and of course, your national origin. Some kapos also had favored prisoners, who they helped.
Details: "Theoretically, each prisoner was entitled to a daily ration of 350 grams of bread, half a liter of ersatz coffee for breakfast, and one liter of turnip and potato soup for lunch. Also, four times a week each prisoner was to receive a soup ration of 20 grams of meat, but in practice meat rarely reached the bowls from which the prisoners ate.... " Much of the food was plundered by the SS-guards and the kapos before the prisoners ever got it. An analysis done after the second World War showed that the average daily calories for prisoners performing hard labor was 1700... yet that pertains to those prisoners WHO SURVIVED! Who found a way to get extra food.

Young Magnus would have started out in one of the usual work squads. He would have been dead in a few weeks, if he hadn't had the personality, the WILL, to get extra food somehow. He also probably had a protector or protectors, older prisoners who showed him the ropes, but at a price.
Sometime in the fall of 1942, he was chosen for the Sonderkommando because of a chance encounter with an SS guard during his transfer to the work detail of "Canada."

In the "Special" Squad, Magnus could have gotten extra food. As the transports of Jews were brought in (the people were told they were going to be "resettled") and the victims were herded into the changing rooms, they left all kinds of food and drink with their clothes. Most members of the Sonderkommando pilfered this. There were other things to "organize" also -- like cigarettes, jewelry, medicines, money; any number of items that could be traded for food. Initially, Magnus wouldn't have been high enough in the prisoner hierarchy, or strong enough, to claim much for trading. But he probably could, and did, find enough extra food to stay alive.

Later, as he survived several waves of destruction of different Sonderkommndo squads, and he got older and became a veteran of the Kommando, he may have been able to organize the items he found among the clothing of the condemned, and thus was able to get enough food to help others survive (as his fellow survivors testified in UXM #199).

Also, he would have been able to bribe enough kapos to keep Magda from being sent to the gas chambers with her family in August of 1944.

Getting extra food in order to survive, still means Magnus suffered from malnutrition and severe abuse. A boy growing from 13 years to 17 or 18 years old under these conditions, would have many physical and emotional problems. It is probable that when he and his family were machine-gunned (as shown in NEW MUTANTS #49, UNCANNY X-MEN #274) he steered the bullets that were meant for him, away, with nascent magnetic abilities that he was unaware of. But the traumas and abuse he suffered put his powers on hold for a long time. In fact, his powers didn't come back for many years. This would be logical, given the severe stress his body and mind were under in Auschwitz.

In the Spielberg Shoah Foundation special that was on television several years ago, one of the survivors who was a child at Auschwitz said, in essence, the youngest prisoners entered the camp at one age, and physically time passed for them, but when they came out, although they were a few years older chronologically, they had not aged or changed emotionally from the time they went in. So that a 18-year-old young man named Magnus, in 1946, was still struggling to survive with the emotional age of a 13 year old. The same with Magda. It would take them several years of quiet, peaceful living to catch up. And it is doubtful that Magda ever caught up.

Drawing by Auschwitz Sonderkommando survivor David Olere

Part 4

Dirtied With Your Own Blood

From Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved:

"With the duly vague definition, 'Special Squad,' the SS referred to thie group of prisoners entrusted with running the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who were to be sent into the gas chambers, to extract the corpses from the chambers, to pull gold teeth from jaws, to cut women's hair, to sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the contents of the luggage, to transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the operation of the ovens, to extract and eliminate the ashes...."

"The Special Squads were made up largely of Jews. In a certain sense this is not surprising since the Lager's main purpose was to destroy Jews, and, beginning in 1943, the Auschwitz population was 90-95 percent Jews. From another point of view, one is stunned by this paroxysm of perfidy and hatred: it must be the Jews who put the Jews into the ovens; it must be shown that the Jews, the subrace, the submen, bow to any and all humiliation, even to destroying themselves. On the other hand, we know that not all the SS gladly accepted massacre as a daily task; delegating part of the work -- and indeed the filthiest part -- to the victims themselves was meant to (and probably did) ease a few consciences here and there."

"Conceiving and organizing the squads was National Socialism's most demonic crime. Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on others the most atrocious tasks) other more subtle aspects can be perceived. This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others -- specifically, the victims -- the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence...."

"The SS treated the newly engaged members [of the Sonderkommando] with the same contempt and detachment that they were accustomed to show toward all prisoners and Jews in particular. It had been inculcated in them that these were despicable beings, enemies of Germany, and therefore not entitled to life; in the most favorable instance, they should be compelled to work until they died of exhaustion. But this is not how they behaved with the veterans of the squad; in them, they recognized to some extent colleagues, by now as inhuman as themselves, hitched to the same cart, bound together by the foul link of imposed complicity."

"Nyiszli [Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian physician who collaborated with the Nazis and Mengele, and was attached in a privileged position to one of the last Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz] tells how during a 'work' pause he attended a soccer game between the SS and the SK (Sonderkommando), that is to say, between a group representing the SS on guard at the crematorium and a group representing the Special Squad. Other men of the SS and the rest of the squad are present at the game; they take sides, bet, applaud, urge the players on as if, rather than at the gates of hell, the game were taking place on the village green. Nothing of this kind ever took place, nor would it have been conceivable, with other categories of prisoners; but with them, with the 'crematorium ravens,' the SS could enter the field on an equal footing, or almost. Behind this armistice one hears satanic laughter; it is consummated, we have succeeded, you no longer are the other race, the antirace, the prime enemy of the millennial Reich; you are no longer the people who reject idols. We have embraced you, corrupted you, dragged you to the bottom with us. You are like us, you proud people: dirtied with your own blood, as we are. You too, like us and like Cain, have killed the brother. Come, we can play together."
Consider Magneto, this boy Magnus, a Jew, a mutant, thrust into this hell and this deal with the devil in order to survive. How perfectly this history, this story, informs Magneto's adult madness, passions and pain, and consuming obsession concerning mutants and their future on earth!

Magneto by Jim Lee, from UNCANNY X-MEN #274 Forum Index -> Magneto
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